CAGW: A Snarl Word?

  1. The science aspects

Emphasizing the Rational Wiki quote above, Jacobs et al (in 2016 book) finds no merit in the claim ‘that catastrophic anthropogenic global warming is the mainstream scientific position’, i.e. mainstream science doesn’t support the concept of a high certainty (absent action) of imminent global catastrophe. So, though the IPCC integrates a range of scientific opinion and incorporates various outlier possibilities, within the scientific community there cannot be a widely accepted theory or hypothesis or premise or case for this. Hence directly tying mainstream climate science (including conventional AGW theory, no ‘C’) to this concept via ‘CAGW’ labeling, or implying that ‘CAGW theory’ is dominant (so perforce must cover the mainstream), is inappropriate. Some think no current science can claim the catastrophic15b, however…

This doesn’t imply an absence of scientific support for the principle. A minority of scientists, some very vocal, believe that ‘CAGW’ scenarios are more realistic. Footnotes 6 and 7 provide examples of about 50 climate scientists plus environmental and other scientists expressing their views of the catastrophic. To express a truly held belief is not to dissemble, so presumably these individuals have theories (probably not all the same) which lead them to this view, albeit not reflected by the mainstream / AR5WGC. Or at least they think such theories from other sources are highly credible. Their expressions typically ignore more balanced interpretations from their mainstream colleagues, or otherwise criticize the mainstream as being too conservative, often performing the same transformation / promotion as mentioned at the end of paragraph 2 section 2 above. Emotive phrasing is common, also featuring a large range of highly negative metaphors (e.g. hell or ballistic missiles or cars speeding towards cliffs), and / or the end of humans or civilization or the planet, with typically a sense of inevitability (unless major action). Hence using say ‘CAGW theory’ to label the claims of specific such scientists, is legitimate. But the much more typical sweeping references that imply ‘CAGW theory’ is the ‘official’ science, are illegitimate. In relation to the current mainstream, ‘CAGW theory’ is very much unofficial science.

Portraying scientists who propagate ‘CAGW’ notions as representative of the mainstream, via ‘CAGW’ labeling or any other means, is also inappropriate. However, this is a forgivable sin for the general public; how would they know that James Hansen, for instance17, occupies a minority fringe at odds with the main climate science community? And they aren’t the only ones subject to confusion about what is mainstream and where particular scientists might stand. Catastrophe narratives have infiltrated climate science and science communities generally. Their strong emotive content erodes objectivity17a and pressures scientists to reflect such narrative, hence especially within science communication. In his book climate scientist Mike Hulme describes a step change towards the catastrophic in the ways that climate change risk was expressed in the public sphere, following an international climate change conference held in Exeter UK, in 2005. And to continue Hulme’s 2006 quote (via the BBC) from section 2: “This discourse is now characterized by phrases such as ‘climate change is worse than we thought’, that we are approaching ‘irreversible tipping in the Earth’s climate’, and that we are ‘at the point of no return’.  I have found myself increasingly chastised by climate change campaigners when my public statements and lectures on climate change have not satisfied their thirst for environmental drama and exaggerated rhetoric. It seems that it is we, the professional climate scientists, who are now the (catastrophe) skeptics. How the wheel turns… …Why is it not just campaigners, but politicians and scientists too, who are openly confusing the language of fear, terror and disaster with the observable physical reality of climate change, actively ignoring the careful hedging which surrounds science’s predictions?” (bold mine). Yet in the face of continuing emotive pressure, even 12 years later a wider acknowledgement of this issue is still weak25.

So, in respect of the science aspects ‘CAGW’ has both appropriate and inappropriate usage. Without a proper survey it seems more typically the latter. Thus it’s likely regarding purely the science aspects that Rational wiki is mostly right, albeit only technically, in saying: ‘Despite the qualifier, denialists apply the term indiscriminately to anything approximating the mainstream scientific view on climate, regardless of whether or not “catastrophic” outcomes are implied’, and notwithstanding its own serious snarl word issue11. In practice, the deep entanglement of catastrophe narratives with climate science communication creates very understandable confusion, and an environment where serious misunderstanding is inevitable.

Given also that for many years the climate change narrative from highest authorities to the public is insistently catastrophic, Rational wiki’s claim that deployment of the acronym is a deliberate ploy of the desperate (‘an attempt to move the goalposts’), is one that ignores the big picture. A-list presidents and prime ministers plus the UN elite and other authorities too (along with some scientists), already moved the goalposts, and indeed repeatedly reinforce that the catastrophic is backed by mainstream science. This impressive and coordinated array of authorities are not generally referred to as ‘deniers’, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that very many folks believe their attribution. Hence such folks are confronted by a complete clash between the unequivocal authority expression that the catastrophic is indeed backed by science18, and affront from individual scientists or their supporters as expressed on side channels when they’re specifically associated with the catastrophic. This affront is very understandable18a. Yet so is the response of those who feel that somewhere within this clash they’ve been hoodwinked, and assume the enterprise of climate science must be the culprit (in fact, an emergent phenomenon is ultimate cause). It’s especially confusing that some actors have a foot in both camps (e.g. significant IPCC contributors who publicly express catastrophe narrative19).

Starting even before AR5 some scientists projecting more severe climate change consequences, including a subset clearly claiming catastrophic outcomes20, complain that mainstream science per the IPCC is way too conservative, even politically diluted. Whether their science is bunkum or has a basis in reality, they likely have significant support. Albeit that the important distinction between ‘severe’ and ‘catastrophic’ isn’t provided, 41% of 998 AGU+AMS members asked about ‘the likely effects of global climate change in the next 50 to 100 years’, replied ‘severe/catastrophic’ (2012, pay-walled, but some details at Wiki). In a more recent expression (Mar 2018) some climate scientists objected to oil companies presenting AR5 as evidence showing lack of serious harms, claiming it was outdated (published 2013/14), and later science predicts much worse consequences. Some scientists emphasizing much higher impacts are socially touted as having better understanding than the majority driving the ‘conservative’ consensus.

However, notwithstanding plenty of catastrophe narrative ballyhoo30 from usual voices regarding the new SR15, as the content itself indicates31 there seems little chance that the steady and incremental evolution of the IPCC reports will change to a dramatically different position for the full AR6, or indeed afterward. And ironically, if various outlier theories regarding the catastrophic did gain enough ground to cause a paradigm shift, becoming mainstream, most of the inappropriate usage of ‘CAGW’ would transform to legitimacy overnight. It’s likely that social pressure to converge upon (cultural, not scientific) narratives of the catastrophic, has contributed to such theories; emotive memes are a major component via which many large-scale social consensuses are formed, e.g. within religions. Such consensuses don’t relate to truth. Note: scientific probing of worst case scenarios is potentially useful, as long as such efforts don’t morph into emotive narratives that help panic the public and policy makers towards perceived ultra-urgency and radical solutions, or indeed towards any agenda. With its speculative nature preserved, such exploration doesn’t earn a ‘CAGW theory’ label. Yet wielding it as authority with sexed-up likelihoods and / or emotively overwhelmed conditionals in order to pressure and persuade (e.g. footnote example 7aa), certainly earns the label ‘CAGW narrative’.

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2 Responses to CAGW: A Snarl Word?

  1. Andy, the CAGW term was first used by the warming protagonists in the 1980s, it remained in use until the warmistas found that it no longer resonated with the massesand switched to the more friendly and understandable but meaningless “Climate Change.” So Rational Wiki is totally wrong here. I just saw your post on JC’s post-testimony blog and replied to it, you address the crux of the matter, the main impediment to rational policy. [I’ve been engaged with the issue since the 1980s.]

    • andywest2012 says:

      Thanks, Faustino. I couldn’t find usage of ‘CAGW’ before the early noughties, though my searching skills are limited. But not much before then, the internet wasn’t so widespread / dominant as now anyhow and so a lot of things aren’t recorded. Very interesting that the term goes back so far. But notwithstanding its own serious snarl-word issue, I think Rational Wiki is right in terms of modern parlance, say 10 years at least, *when* the term is applied inappropriately, e.g. to mainstream science. But not when it’s applied appropriately, e.g. ‘CAGW narrative’ for the high certainty of imminent global catastrophe that political leaders constantly spout, per the post. Thanks too for the nice comment at Climate Etc 🙂 I replied briefly there.

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